For years we have worked together to help drive forward community initiatives with social impact, and have even formally set up our own social enterprises.
However, we often found social enterprises to be very frustrating, as they can be problematic in nature.
While there is no clear definition of what it takes to be a “social enterprise,” we always thought the basic principle – that, generally, a social enterprise must have social impact at its heart, and that all proceeds must go back into the organisation – was a good starting point, and an example for how our economy could be run better: rather than the destruction of rainforests or the dumping of toxic sludge somewhere in the interests of profit for shareholders, social enterprises mean people over profit, literally social impact being the aim of the game, and a surplus being put back in to this cause.
It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? But it has its issues.
Firstly, as social entrepreneurs, we know that many grant funding organisations won’t fund us if we’re also on the board of directors of that social enterprise. So while there is a lot of talk about championing the social entrepreneur, they often either want social entrepreneurs to remain unpaid, or alternatively have the social enterprise itself essentially run by directors who are alienated from the day-to-day running of the organisation, yet have full control. That sounds a lot like the very worst parts of capitalism to us, just without the profits!
So, then, many social enterprises are quite hierarchical. Some charitable organisations – further following capitalism’s lead – also pay management extremely high wages that are in disparity to a lot of the workers “on the ground.”
One thing we both talk about a lot is the quest for a democratic economy; democratic workplaces. Think about it. We’re all up in arms when we see a country’s government disenfranchising its citizens so they don’t have a say over things – and rightly so. And yet when it comes to work – the place so many of us spend the best part of our day – we are often completely shut out from having a say on how it’s run, how the surplus is spent, and what our needs are.
Unions are very important (we are both proud members of the IWW), but the long game is about striving for a removal of the distinction between “owners” and “workers”; employers and employees. How do you get that? By workplaces being cooperatives.
Cooperatives, or Richard Wolff’s workers self-directed enterprises (WSDE’s), mean business decisions that affect the local community (and of course other communities like it) are made by the workers who live in that local community, and while there are no capitalist bosses using hierarchical approaches (and there are certainly no profits for shareholders sat somewhere!), there are different levels of responsibilities within the business, and different roles to reflect these. Workplaces like these can be both vibrant and diverse, yet with the distribution of the surplus decided on by the workers themselves who commit their labour to production to generate these proceeds in the first place.
So, as we developed a number of not-for-profit initiatives and organisations – social enterprises – we realised that it was important to get away from these models that still resembled capitalism with their directors and their workers and problematic power structures, and instead, through our work, attempt to contribute to democratisation of the economy in some way. It might be a small way. But it’s still practising what we preach, and putting our money where our mouths are.
Our Canadian friend Brian Lockyer once ran a campaign called Be the Change, based on the Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” So that’s what we’re championing; that’s what we’re doing. It’s time to make it happen through deeds not words. It’s time to be the change.
With an increasingly right-wing government in Britain seeking to further shift power away from workers and into the hands of the bosses and the billionaires, this decision seems even more pertinent. We have to not only oppose Boris Johnson and his kind; that won’t be enough. We can actually take positive action to create counter-power structures, safe spaces, social centres, programmes, even workplaces that literally contribute to communities being built and run in a way that actively challenges the ideology of those people. That’s how you be the change.
We’ve spearheaded a non-profit journalism initiative, SilenceBreaker Media. Fine, let’s make it a journalists’ cooperative! We’ve developed a non-profit technology initiative, the FreeTech Project. Fine, let’s make it a tech co-operative! We’ve run AFC Unity for over five years, during which time we endured many headaches to create a football club that was completely counter-cultural to traditional football. It’s a registered company limited by guarantee, and strictly not-for-profit. However, it has no workers, but does have a lot of subscribers who make a long-term financial commitment to the continuation of the club. Fine, let’s make it a consumer cooperative!
And we’ll do more.
As Naomi Klein said with the book No Is Not Enough and as reflected by its very title, it’s not enough to say what you’re against. You have to be clear about what you’re for.
One of the ways the 2008 financial crisis hurt us so much was simply through the element of shock to the system. Yes, many of us predicted it, but we were too busy making warnings rather than preparing and perpetuating arguments for alternatives to the casino capitalism that crashed the economy. And while this “shock” Naomi Klein talks about was still in effect amongst most of us, the same people behind the causes of the crash used it as an excuse to plunder our public services to pay for the bankers and their bonuses, and take care of vested private interests. They got away with it. We weren’t ready.
It’s important to have a clear vision of the world we want to live in. And it’s also important to try and live in a way that helps create and shape that world, in the face of adversity. It’s not enough to complain, to protest (though we should certainly do those too, maybe more than ever). We have to do something positive. We have to act in a way that makes a positive contribution to the creation of the world we want to live in, too.
It’s time for all of us to do our bit, in some way or another, in solidarity, to solidify and strengthen these structures that stand in the face of injustice and inequality – to create counter-powers to the “powers-that-be.”
Yes. It’s time to #BeTheChange.